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That our young people seem increasingly likely to have issues of anxiety, low self-esteem and depression has been widely discussed in the media and within academic circles (though the whether there is a real rise is debated). News articles warn us of the perils of social media for young people, with many outlining the impact of being online on their well-being and mental health (for example Guardian, Monday 28th Jan 2019). And this seems to make sense: after all, if your eyes are glued to a screen then you are not engaging with the world around you in a meaningful way. Our teenagers are at risk of loosing sleep, becoming couch potatoes and developing poor social skills! However, is this all the story? Can being online be good for adolescents. Well a recent study suggests just that…at least engaging in social media (and gaming) for some of the time actually seems to have a positive effect on well-being of young people.

Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of Oxford University explored the relationship between how much time is spent online and well-being. As stated in their article published in 2017, experts are so concerned about the amount of time spent online and the impact of this that governments and psychology bodies promote low time limits on screen use, with some suggesting any amount of time spent online is likely to lead to lower levels of mental health. Przybylski and Weinstein questioned whether use of technology is intrinsically bad for well-being, and argued that indeed some levels may be advantageous. Their premise (called the “digital Goldilocks hypothesis” ), is based on the acceptance that we live in a technically connected world and potentially there is a “just right” amount of time to spend online. English school children took part in the study (a total of 120,115 aged 15 years old), completing questionnaires about online activities, well-being scores and demographic information. Activities included television, gaming, smartphones and computers.

Results indicated that moderate amounts of time online enhanced well-being, with those young people who spent little to no time online having lower well-being scores to those who spent up to 90 minutes online per day during the week. However, well-being did deteriorate slightly once they were spending more than 2 hours online, with individuals who spent the most time online reporting a lower sense of well-being. However, the authors argue that this may not be directly related to screen time (for example isolated individuals may spend time online because they are lonely and that may decrease their sense of well-being). Furthermore, the effect was more pronounced during midweek compared to weekends, possibly due to the impact screen time has with organised activities or school work.

What does this study miss? Well, I would argue that it shows that if we are in a connected world we need to have some connection with that world, probably most days for some time if you are 15 years old and English! It doesn’t show us what would happen to well-being if we took teenagers phones and other screens away from them, as sometimes happens in Silicon Valley.